Authors: Laurie Halse Anderson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #Depression & Mental Illness, #Love & Romance, #Historical, #Military & Wars
The school counselors shared a waiting room that held uncomfortable chairs, overloaded bulletin boards, a secretary named Gerta with blood-red talons, and a coffeepot that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the turn of the century.
When I walked in, the doors to all of the counselors’ offices were closed. I stood in front of Gerta’s desk. Her fingernails had worn off most of the letters on her keyboard. Only the
had any pigment left. A girl behind one of the closed doors was sobbing, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
Ms. Benedetti stepped into the office carrying a cup of coffee from the gas station closest to school. Good call.
“My name was on the list,” I said.
“We have a few things to discuss,” she said. “Let’s talk in here.”
I followed her into her private office, a box barely big enough to fit her desk, a file cabinet, and two chairs. It did have a window, however, that looked on to the student parking lot. Some people said that Benedetti filmed the activities out there with a secret camera. Given that her computer looked older than me, I doubted that.
Ms. Benedetti hung up her jacket on a hook, sat at her desk, and took the lid off her coffee.
I sat in the chair by the window, mouth shut.
The trick to surviving an interrogation is patience. Don’t offer up anything. Don’t explain. Answer the question and only the question that is asked so you don’t accidentally put your head in a noose.
“How are things going?” she asked.
I stared at her through the dust that hovered in the air. “Fine.”
“I didn’t see your name on the community service list for September,” she said.
“You can’t postpone your service requirement, Hayley. All students are required to perform two hours a month, every month. You signed up for,” she glanced at her screen, “for St. Anthony’s Nursing Home.” She handed me a sheet of paper. “There are some sweet old people living there, you’ll like it. A staff member needs to sign this attendance log. Be sure to turn it into Gerta so you get credit for your hours.”
“Mandatory community service” seemed like hypocrisy, but Benedetti cared more about attendance lists than philosophy. I took the paper without committing to anything.
“Can I go now?”
“Not yet.” She picked up two packets of sugar, the real stuff, and shook them. “You’ve had detention eleven times since school started.”
That was a statement, not a question, so it did not require a response.
“It seems like you’re struggling a bit with the adjustment to traditional schooling.”
Another statement. She was making this easy.
She ripped open the packets and poured them into the coffee. “Particularly in calculus. How is that going?”
“Precalc,” I corrected. “It’s fine.”
I was fluent in practical math: checkbook balancing; gas mileage calculation; how many gallons of paint it would take to make the living room look nice. Precalculus was taught in dog whistle, a pitch too high to hear. I generally spent the class drawing predatory zeppelins and armies of bears in my math notebook.
“Mr. Cleveland thinks you may need a tutor.”
Some statements beg for a response. I shrugged.
“He’ll talk to you about it.” Benedetti pried the foil top off three plastic containers of chemical milk, poured them in her cup, and changed her angle of approach. “How is your father doing?”
This time, she let the silence draw out, waiting for me to become uncomfortable enough to open my mouth. The sobbing of the girl next door soaked through the drywall and filled the room.
“I can’t remember if he played football or basketball,” she said. “I’m pretty sure he knew my little brother. Was he with that group of guys who got in trouble for the party at the quarry after the championship game?”
I shrugged again. Dad rarely talked about growing up in Belmont, but I wasn’t about to let her know that. The first time we met, Benedetti told me that I could trust her and tell her anything. People who have to announce that they are trustworthy deserve to be lied to.
She waited, eyebrows up, wanting me to say more. I counted the seconds, one after another, watching them drop like heavy rocks down a deep well. Benedetti caved after one minute, twelve.
“The thing is, I’m having a hard time getting ahold of your father,” she said.
I did not respond.
“I called his work number, but they said he quit a couple weeks ago. Does he have a cell phone?”
Quit? He quit?
She leaned forward, like she sensed that something was wrong.
“What do you need him for?” I asked.
She stirred her coffee with the black plastic stick. “We need contact information for all of our parents. Where is he working now?”
We had reached that point in the interrogation where I had to cough up some information or risk unnecessary aggravation.
“He’s taking time off to write a book,” I said.
It wasn’t a great lie, but in my defense, I was tired and I really should have eaten that bagel back in the cafeteria. I folded my arms over my chest and watched a red Sentra and a black Mustang scream into the student lot. The Sentra drove up and down the aisles, looking for a spot close to the building and finding nothing.
“About the war,” I added.
“Perfect.” She stopped stirring. “I want to invite him to be a part of our Veterans Day assembly, too.”
“Save your breath,” I said. “He hates that stuff.”
The Mustang headed straight for the back row, the only row with empty spaces, and parked under a maple tree with leaves so orange it looked like a glowing pumpkin.
“That’s what your stepmother said.”
The word exploded in front of my eyes and set the ceiling on fire. I forced myself to turn my head and focus on that tree and to count,
two, three, four, five
, before I answered.
“I don’t have a stepmother.”
Benedetti nodded. “The first time she called, I checked your records. I was pretty sure you hadn’t mentioned her. But she was persistent. After several calls, she emailed me the paperwork that proved she had been your legal guardian during your father’s deployments.”
“He never married her.”
“You lived with her,” Benedetti checked her screen again, “from the time you were six until you were twelve.”
“And then she left.”
She stirred her coffee again. “I gather there are still some hard feelings?”
“None, it’s just that she’s a scum-sucking idiot.”
Someone knocked gently before I could slap my own mouth for blabbing.
Benedetti got up and listened briefly to the person at the door. “I’ll just be a minute.”
A few leaves spiraled down from the maple tree at the back of the parking lot. Six years I lived with Trish, it said that on her computer. Truth? I barely remembered it. I’d get flashes here and there, like fireflies, gone before I could get a good look at them. The years before Trish? Clouds strung on a necklace, the smell of lemons, the sound of bees in a garden. The years of Trish?
Nada. Méi shén me
The years after?
After she left, we drifted back and forth across the country in a dented eighteen-wheeler—Dad steering, me navigating—stopping every once in a while in tiny towns that seemed like islands in the middle of an ocean of corn or snow or sand. We’d stay a month or two, until the past caught up to him and blew us out the door again. The miles under the tires helped fade everything we didn’t want to remember into a vague pattern of loosely knit-together shadows that stayed just out of reach, where they belonged.
My heart suddenly revved, then raced, and
no, no, no.
Not going there. No need. Don’t want to. Not going to. Just breathe. It’s all good. I’m good. Dad is fine. Focus, focus
. Orange tree.
Lines of cars. Sun bouncing off windshields.
Asphalt. Lines of tar filling in the cracks.
The girl next door had stopped crying.
Benedetti came back in and sat down. “Right, where were we?” She took a long swig of coffee and set the cup next to her keyboard, the rim stained with beige lip gloss. “Your stepmother is concerned about you and your father. She told me a few things that contradict what your father said when he enrolled you. That’s another reason I need to talk to him.”
“She’s not my stepmother.” I stood up. “She’s a cheating, alcoholic asshole who can’t open her mouth without lying. She . . . You can’t talk to her about me. Can I go?”
She nodded slowly. “I hear what you’re saying and I understand. But I still need to talk to your father. If he doesn’t want to call me, I can stop by your house.”
“He’ll call,” I said. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“One more thing.” Benedetti opened the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a sealed envelope. My name was written on the front in black, spidery ink, familiar handwriting.
“She sent this.” Benedetti set it on top of my books. “The woman who apparently was not your stepmother. She asked me to give it to you.”
I opened my precalc textbook and shoved the envelope inside. “I’m not going to read it.”
“Your choice. Oh, and don’t forget to sign up for your SATs. You’re running out of time.”
Instead of heading for precalc, I detoured around the technology pod, looped through the music wing, behind the cafeteria, and through the back entrance to the library. I flashed my late pass at Ms. Burkey, the last librarian left standing after the school board fired the rest of the staff, and hurried to the far end of the nonfiction stacks like I was on a mission, the way Gracie taught me. When Ms. Burkey turned her attention to a loud group of guys in the computer room, I emerged to hunt for something real to read so that I could distract my brain from imploding.
A small table covered with a red paper tablecloth had been set up next to the new books display. A cardboard sign with genocide awareness written on it was taped to the front edge of the table and a banner reading one world, hung on the wall behind it. A bulk-sized box of Snickers and a Tupperware container of homemade brownies had been placed on the table next to laminated photos of mutilated bodies. Dark blood pooled on the dirt and ran in slow rivers from the dead toward the photographer. In one picture, a child’s hand clutching a rag doll poked out from underneath a heap of broken adults.
An index card showed the price of the snacks:
Brownies $1, Candy $2
A tiny girl with rings on all of her fingers sat behind the table reading a tattered paperback.
“Is this a club?” I asked. “A genocide awareness club?”
“One World is more than just genocide.” She stuck a scrap of paper in the book to mark her page. “We build schools in Afghanistan and dig wells in Botswana.”
“Do members of the club get to travel to those places, you know, to do the work?”
“I wish,” she said. “We try to raise awareness. And money. The candy bars are the best sellers. Do you want one?”
“I’d rather have a brownie.” I reached in my pocket and sorted through the change while she put a brownie in a plastic bag for me. “Thanks.” I handed her the quarters and she handed me my lunch.
“We meet every Wednesday,” she said. “Ms. Duda’s room, 304, next to the stairs.”
I took the brownie. “Do the pictures ever gross anyone out?”
She shook her head. “People don’t really look at them.”
My math teacher noted the precise time that Benedetti had marked down on my late pass and calculated that I had blown off one-third of his class. He scolded me for so long that I had to hustle to make it to English. I was in luck; Ms. Rogak was still standing in the hall, deep in conversation with the technology teacher who always wore a huge, blue union button on his shirt. I scooted past them and through the door.
My usual seat, back row, center aisle, was already taken by Brandon Something, a tennis player who constantly misused the word
. I needed that seat. It had the best view of the door and a solid wall to lean against. If trouble walked in, I’d have plenty of room to maneuver. Yes, I was being paranoid. I knew that Trish was not going to storm my English class with a commando team, but hearing her name, knowing that she was snooping around and could show up to make life even worse had driven me perilously close to a three-alarm anxiety meltdown. Sitting back row, center aisle was not an option. It was a requirement.
“You’re in my seat,” I told Brandon Something. “Sit on my face,” he said.
“Move,” I said.
“What’ll you give me?”
A couple of heads swiveled to watch us.
My adrenaline turned up a notch. “How about a swift
kick in the balls?”
Before he could respond, Ms. Rogak
ed in on her stiletto heels, shutting the door hard enough to stop all snickering and conversation.
“Up front, Brandon,” she said. “I don’t need you scheming back there today. Books open, everyone. Attention on me.”
Brandon bumped into me as he carried his books to the empty seat in front. “Bitch,” he whispered.
Ms. Rogak had Melody Byrd read a passage: Circe trying to bewitch Odysseus:
“‘Now you are burnt-out husks, your spirits haggard, sere,
always brooding over your wanderings long and hard,
your hearts never lifting with any joy—
you’ve suffered far too much.’”
I stared at the page until the letters melted into the paper. Trish’s envelope waited in my math book. Ticking. Sweat trickled down my neck and soaked into my shirt. I kept breathing,
slow, slow, steady
, but my hands would not stop shaking. Why did she call Benedetti? How did she even know where we lived?
The page started to dissolve into the desk and I closed my eyes.
A knife ripped through the veil between Now and Then and I fell in
ripping . . . Daddy holds my hand. A strange woman steps in front of us. She is Trish and I have to love her now . . .